Allan Pettersson

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Gustaf (or Gustav) Allan Pettersson (19 September 1911 – 20 June 1980) was a Swedish composer. Today he is considered one of the most important Swedish composers of the 20th century. His symphonies developed a devoted international following, starting in the final decade of his life.


Pettersson, one of four children of a violent, alcoholic blacksmith, was born at the manor of Granhammar in Västra Ryd parish in the province of Uppland, but grew up in poor circumstances in Stockholm, where he resided during his whole life. He once said of himself: "I wasn't born under a piano, I didn't spend my childhood with my father, the composer... no, I learnt how to work white-hot iron with the smith's hammer. My father was a smith who may have said no to God, but not to alcohol. My mother was a pious woman who sang and played with her four children" [1]

In 1930, he began study of violin and viola, as well as counterpoint and harmony, at the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music. He became a distinguished viola player but also started composing songs and smaller chamber works in the 1930s. At the beginning of the second world war he was studying the viola in Paris. During the 1940s he worked as a violist in the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra (later Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), but also studied composition privately with Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Otto Olsson. His production from this decade include the twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) and a concerto for violin and string quartet (1949).

In 1951 Pettersson composed the first of his seventeen symphonies, which he left unfinished. This work has recently been recorded in a performing version prepared by trombonist and conductor Christian Lindberg. The later symphonies were to follow in rapid succession. Also in 1951 he went to Paris to study composition, having been a student of René Leibowitz, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud.

Pettersson returned to Sweden in 1953. That same year he was given the diagnosis polyarthritis and, by the time of his fifth symphony, completed in 1962, his mobility and health were considerably compromised.[2] His greatest success came a few years later with his seventh symphony (1966–67), which was premiered on 13 October 1968 in Stockholm Concert Hall with Antal Doráti conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.[3] The 7th has also received more recordings than his other works. The release of a recording of his seventh symphony with Doráti conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra was a breakthrough, establishing his international reputation (Grammis 1970). The conductors Antal Doráti and Sergiu Comissiona premiered (and made premiere recordings of) several of Pettersson's symphonies and contributed to his rise to fame during the seventies.

He was hospitalized for nine months in 1970, soon after the composition of his ninth and longest symphony, beginning to write the tenth (1972) from his sickbed.[4] He recovered, but polyarthritis confined him most of the time to his apartment.[5][6] During the last decade of his life he also wrote the cantata Vox Humana (1974, on texts by Latin American poets), concertos for violin and orchestra (1977–78) and for viola and orchestra (1979), a twelfth symphony for mixed chorus and orchestra (1973) to poems by Pablo Neruda and a sixteenth symphony (1979) which features a bravura solo part for alto saxophone. He also started to write a seventeenth symphony, but he died in Maria Magdalena parish, Stockholm, aged 68, before finishing it.[7]


Pettersson's writing is very strenuous and often has many simultaneous polyphonic lines; earlier works are close to tonality in their melodic approach, later works less so. His symphonies all end on common chords—major or minor chords—but tonality, which depends on some sense, however attenuated, of tonal progression, is found mostly in slower sections: e.g., the openings and endings of his 6th and 7th symphonies, and the end of his 9th. The musical argument seems to be determined, in faster sections, by motivic requirements far more than by harmonic resolution, as exemplified by the study score of the 7th symphony, pp. 20-44. Most of his symphonies are written in a single movement, making them all the more demanding. Overwhelmingly serious in tone, often dissonant, his music rises to ferocious climaxes, relieved, especially in his later works, by lyrical oases.

Pettersson’s music has a very distinctive sound and can hardly be confused with that of any other 20th-century composer. His symphonies, which range in length from 25 to 67 minutes, are typically one-movement works made up of successive stretches of music of varying rhythms and figurations. The effect is like listening to a gigantic toccata or chorale prelude. Sometimes the effect is predominantly that of dance-music, as in the Symphony No.9, which sounds for long stretches like a huge Mahler scherzo, sometimes the effect is grimmer, with march rhythms or angry declamation predominating, as in the Symphony No.13.

Pettersson maintains the listener’s interest by varying the sounds and moods of the different sections, so some are more lyrical, others faster and more angry. The architecture of his symphonies is built on similar thematic material emerging at key points in the work (rather than classical statement-development-recapitulation), by rhythmic vitality and tonal progression. Even though his symphonies are some of the longest single movement orchestral works ever written[citation needed], they are intensely compelling. The effect they convey is of great vitality and unstoppable momentum.

Most of his music has now been recorded at least once and much of it is now available in published score.

Symphonies 7 and 8 are probably his best-known works.


The discography includes the original format of the recording and releasing label. Some of the LP releases have been reissued on CD. A 12-CD pack of the Complete Symphonies of Allan Pettersson has been produced by CPO (Classic Produktion Osnabrück, [1]) based on recordings of 1984, 1988, 1991-1995, 2004.

  • Symphony No. 3 (1954/55)
    • Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (BIS CD)
  • Symphony No. 5 (1960/62)
  • Symphony No. 8 (1968/69)
    • Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Sergiu Comissiona (Polar LP and Deutsche Grammophon LP)[9]
    • Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Thomas Sanderling (CPO CD)
    • Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg, Gerd Albrecht (Orfeo CD)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (BIS CD)
  • Symphony No. 9 (1970)
    • Göteborgs Symfoniker, Sergiu Comissiona (Philips LP)
    • Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg (BIS CD)
  • Symphony No. 10 (1971/72)
    • Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antal Doráti (EMI LP)
    • NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (BIS CD)
  • Symphony No. 11 (1971/73)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (BIS CD)
    • NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
  • Symphony No. 12 »De döda på torget« (1973/74)
    • Stockholms Filharmoniska Orkester, Stockholms Filharmoniska Kör, Uppsala Akademiska Kammarkör, Carl Rune Larsson (Caprice CD)
    • Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Choir, Manfred Honeck (CPO CD)
  • Symphony No. 13 (1976)
    • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
  • Symphony No. 14 (1976)
    • Stockholms Filharmoniska Orkester, Sergiu Comissiona (Phono Suecia CD)
    • Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Johan M. Arnell (CPO CD)
  • Symphony No. 15 (1978)
    • Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Peter Ruzicka (CPO CD)
    • Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (BIS CD)
  • Symphonic Movement (1972)
    • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Alun Francis (CPO CD)
  • Concerto No. 1 for Violin and String Quartet (1949)
  • Concerto No. 1 for String Orchestra
    • Musicae Vitae, Petter Sundkvist (Caprice Records)
    • Nordic Chamber Orchestra, Christian Lindberg (BIS)
    • Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss, Johannes Goritzki (CPO)
  • Concerto No. 2 for String Orchestra
    • Musicae Vitae, Petter Sundkvist (Caprice Records)
    • Nordic Chamber Orchestra, Christian Lindberg (BIS)
    • Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss, Johannes Goritzki (CPO)
  • Concerto No. 3 for String Orchestra
    • Nordic Chamber Orchestra, Christian Lindberg (BIS)
    • Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss, Johannes Goritzki (CPO)
  • Cantata »Vox Humana« (1974)
    • Marianne Mellnas (soprano), Margot Rodin (alto), Sven-Erik Alexandersson (tenor), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Radio Chorus, Stig Westerberg


  1. ^ Pettersson, Allan; Hammar, Sigvard (5 March 1972). "Musiken gör livet uthärdligt [intervju]". Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish).  cited in Meyer, Andreas K. W. (1994). Pettersson: Symphony No. 3 & 4 (booklet). Alun Francis and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken. Georgsmarienhütte, Germany: CPO 999 223-2. p. 23. 
  2. ^ Aare, Leif (1994). Pettersson: Vox humana (booklet). Stig Westerberg, Marianne Mellnäs, Margot Rödin, Sven-Erik Alexandersson, Erland Hagegård, Swedish Radio Choir, and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Djursholm: BIS CD-55. p. 6. 
  3. ^ Kube, Michael (July 2013). "Då behöver man distansen [Da braucht man Distanz]. Biografie und Werk zwischen Selbstinszenierung und Reflexion". In Tadday, Ulrich. Allan Pettersson, Musik-Konzepte (edition text+kritik) (in German). München: Richard Boorberg Verlag. pp. 5–22. ISBN 978-3-86916-275-1. 
  4. ^ Meyer, Andreas K. W. (1997). Pettersson: Symphony No. 10 & 11 (booklet). Alun Francis and Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR. Georgsmarienhütte, Germany: CPO 999 285-2. p. 16. 
  5. ^ Hammar, Sigvard (19 January 1980). "Vår store kompositör". Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish).  cited in Kube, Michael (2013).
  6. ^ Berggren, Peter; Höglind, Tommy and Källström, Gunnar (October 2013). Människans röst (Vox Humana - The Voice of Man) [A documentary 1973 - 78] (BIS-2038 Bonus DVD). Stockholm. 
  7. ^ Meyer, Andreas K. W. (1996). Pettersson: Symphony No.5 & 16 (booklet). Alun Francis, John-Edward Kelly, and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken. Georgsmarienhütte, Germany: CPO 999 284-2. p. 19. 
  8. ^ Swedish Society Discophil SLT 33194 (LP), (1970), Expo Norr RIKS LP 155, Caprice CAP 1015, Decca SXL 6538 (LP), (1971), London CS 6740 (LP), (1972), Swedish Society Discofil SCD 1002 (1994-01-01), 1969-09-18 to 1969-09-20:Stockholm, Konserthuset, September 1969. OCLC 2845126
  9. ^ Polar POLS289 (LP), (1978), Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 2531-176 (LP), (1980), 1977-10-27 & 1977-10-31:Baltimore, Maryland, Lyric Theatre, October 1977. OCLC 6699312.


  • Göran Bergendal: 33 svenska komponister. Lindblad, Stockholm, 1972. ISBN 91-32-40374-7
  • Leif Aare: Allan Pettersson. Norstedt, Stockholm, 1978. ISBN 91-1-783412-0
  • Paul Rapoport: Opus est. Six composers from Northern Europe, ch. V: Allan Pettersson and his Symphony No. 2, p. 109-132. Kahn & Averill, London, 1978. ISBN 0-900707-88-7. 2nd ed., Taplinger, New York, 1985. ISBN 0-8008-5845-X
  • Mechthild Nicolin (ed.): Musik von Allan Pettersson. Sekretariat für gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Wuppertal, 1994.
  • Laila Barkefors: Gallret och stjärnan. Allan Petterssons väg genom Barfotasånger till symfoni. Dissertation Gothenburg University, 1995. ISBN 91-85974-34-X
  • Michael Kube (ed.): Allan Pettersson (1911-1980): Texte, Materialien, Analysen. Von Bockel, Hamburg, 1994. ISBN 3-928770-30-6
  • Michael Kube: Allan Pettersson Symphonie Nr. 8. Florian Noetzel, Wilhelmshaven, 1996. ISBN 3-7959-0708-X
  • Laila Barkefors: Allan Pettersson: det brinner en sol inom oss - en tonsättares liv och verk. Sveriges Radios Förlag, Stockholm, 1999. ISBN 91-522-1822-8
  • Allan Pettersson-Jahrbuch. Pfau-Verlag, Saarbrücken (1986 - 2004).

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